Happy memories of the legendary producer
Happy memories of the legendary producer
Bill MacQuitty was almost a part of my youth.
After seeing A Night to Remember at my local cinemas several times (about a year after having read Walter Lord’s book after it had been released), his name had stuck in my memory.
Over the next few years I collected “stills” (lobby cards to you in the USA) from the film and even wrote to Mr. MacQuitty to see if he could send me a poster. Unfortunately, he was unable to do so, but I still have his brief letter that told me. One of the stills showed Bill MacQuitty and director Roy Baker discussing a point on a large model of Titanic. I thought then how much like dashing actor George Sanders he looked. I eventually received an invitation to visit Pinewood Studios to meet the people who had made the film but, then being a shy lad from the Isle of Wight, regrettably, never took that offer up.
After many years, I started to write my own books and was invited to give a talk on board the QE2 during a transatlantic crossing. A while afterwards, I met the people who had booked me for that talk in a Southampton restaurant for lunch and, during the meal, they mentioned that Bill MacQuitty had been on board giving his own talk, had shown A Night to Remember (he would later recall with a chuckle that the theatre curtains had moved with the ship’s motion in time with the opening sequence of a rough sea in the movie) and had explained that he had written a book called, appropriately, A Life to Remember. I ask my hosts if they could ask Mr. MacQuitty if he would kindly autograph a book and send it to me.
About six months passed when, on a Saturday morning, I answered the telephone, at my home in Lee-on-The Solent on the Hampshire coast.
“Bill MacQuitty here. I’ve got your book for you. Come up and get it.”
A couple of weeks later I was in Bill’s delightful flat (translation: apartment) that overlooked the River Thames at Fulham in London. His lovely wife, Betty, was also there. During the course of our conversation, which was wide and varied (he told me that he had a quarter of a million slides, including a series on Tutankhamen used in his book on the subject and as a poster for a major British exhibition, rare and exotic flowers, etc.), I mentioned my affection for his film. I even took a film poster that I had since obtained to show him and which he kindly signed (this would later be used as a video cover). He also showed me design books and other items from when the film was being planned.
“Oh! And I made a behind-the-scenes home movie when we were shooting the film,” he said. This was exciting news to me. “Any chance of transferring it to video so that I can show it at the British Titanic Society’s convention?” I asked.
Another few months and another telephone call, “The video is all ready if you want to come up.”
I certainly did and, on seeing the complete run through of the silent film, I said “This is just too good just to show to a hundred people.”
“Well, it’s all yours to do with what you want with it,” he replied.
Previous conventions had made me aware of Ray Johnson, a video producer from Stoke-on-Trent, who had produced a few Titanic videos. He was happy to collaborate with me on the project. I contacted Walter Lord in New York, whom I had met on a visit to his apartment with Charlie Haas and Jack Eaton, but his secretary said that a charge of $16,000 was expected. Bill contacted his old friend directly and a zero fee resulted.
I wrote out a list of questions and Ray flew to New York to interview Walter in his apartment. On his return, we did the same with Bill with me, with the assistance of my stepdaughter Marcia, asking the questions “off camera.” Bill’s subsequent responses were then filmed. The two interviews and original footage were then edited by Ray. A most satisfactory experience resulted in the video The Making of “A Night to Remember,” which has since been shown on British television and is often released in conjunction with the main film. It was very much a labour of love on my part as my small share of royalties just about covered my expenses! But who needed more than that?
Ever since that happy encounter, we would occasionally talk on the phone. His response to inquiries as to his health were usually either “Ninety-whatever below the neck, but eighteen above it!” or “Still six feet above the ground!” Bill, being a great philosopher, always wanted me to take over his role as a campaigner for anything that was right for the planet and mankind (in that order). Into his nineties he wrote yet another book, How to Survive the Nineties, which I reviewed at his request for a British magazine designed for the older citizen.
My annual Christmas card to him always brought forth a Boxing Day call from him in response (“Saves trees!”) and I thought that it was unusual that I did not get a call from him after this last Christmas 2003. I eventually began to worry so I decided to ring him. But, just before I was going to do so another chum, Simon Mills, called to say that Bill had died the week before, just two months before his 99th birthday. I then, in turn, phoned a very, similarly stunned Ray Johnson, who had also maintained a contact.
Bill had always said that his lucky number was 5 (he was born on 15th May 1905) and he had died on another 5th, although of February.
Bill’s funeral was a private one, but I sent flowers to the family and made a sad call to Betty to express my own feelings of loss whilst sympathizing with hers of a far greater nature. Bill had maintained that Betty had knowledge of the time of his going but she would not say if she had been right.
I will miss my lengthy calls from Bill. A Buddhist and a great humanitarian with a zest for life, he will be greatly missed.
First published in Voyage, the journal of the Titanic International Society.